• U.S.

The Limits of Black Power

14 minute read
Jack E. White/Atlanta

TOM BRADLEY BASED HIS FIRST campaign for mayor of Los Angeles on the idea that his election could make a difference in the lives of average blacks. “I want to provide a sense of hope for our young people,” he said in 1969. “I want them to be able to look at city hall and know that the system can work. I want them to know that change is possible. I want them to know that we can reshape the structure, that it doesn’t have to be destroyed. I want them to know that in city hall sits a man with whom they can identify, that if he made it, anybody can make it. That’s what this election is all about.”

As it turned out, Bradley lost that election. He won four years later using a similarly optimistic theme, and has been in city hall ever since. In the aftermath of the chaos that erupted in his city last week, Bradley’s expansive view of what his election could accomplish seems hopelessly naive — and not just in Los Angeles. The high expectations that greeted the election of thousands of African Americans to local, state and federal offices over the past three decades have been displaced by frustration. By every statistical measure from joblessness to out-of-wedlock births, the plight of the poorest blacks has deteriorated in nearly all the cities that blacks control politically. Black elected officials and black voters alike have discovered the harsh limits of their power. As the violence in L.A. showed, many of them remain as alienated from the political process as they were a generation ago.

There are many reasons for the depressing state of black politics. Most black mayors are trying to revive cities that were already in economic and social decline. Federal aid to urban areas has been drastically cut even as AIDS, drugs and homelessness strained social-welfare systems to the breaking point. The racial climate has worsened because of white fears of black criminals and disputes over affirmative action. Beyond that are large social and economic trends: the loss of the well-paid manufacturing jobs that gave many blacks their first step up the economic ladder, and the flight from the inner city to the suburbs of both black and white middle-class families, leaving behind ever more concentrated populations of the desperately poor.

These factors alone would have made it difficult for black politicians to fulfill the promise of the 1960s. But there are other dismaying reasons for the disappointment some African Americans feel about the political process. One is the lingering power of whites to devise new ways of preventing black officials from effectively exercising power. Another is that blacks have often failed to support institutions that are vital to the realization of their dreams. Perhaps most damaging is the tendency of many black officials, like former Washington Mayor Marion Barry and Chicago Congressman Gus Savage, to hide their failures in a cynical game of racial politics. Their slogan might be: Support me because I am black, whether or not I deliver. Until quite recently, the slogan worked.


Ed Brown sits alone in the headquarters of the Voter Education Project, surrounded by history. The run-down house near the mostly black Atlanta University Complex is littered with cardboard cartons stuffed with records that date back to 1962, when America’s homegrown version of apartheid reigned throughout the South and all but a handful of blacks were denied the right to vote. Today, thanks largely to VEP’S unheralded support of grass-roots voter- registration and education drives, 5.5 million Southern blacks have registered and the number of black elected officials in the region has exploded from less than 100 to more than 4,400.

Yet VEP is now going out of business, even though its mission is far from complete: 4 million eligible Southern blacks are still not registered. Last December the big white-controlled foundations that have funded vep for the past 30 years ceased their support. Brown, the organization’s director since 1989, tried to raise money from other sources and failed. “There’s a conception on the part of many people that voter registration and the issues around it are basically passe, that whatever might have been problems have been resolved,” he says. “That perception, unfortunately, is incorrect. We are no longer subjected to fire hoses and dogs and physical intimidation and the prospect of murder in our attempts to exercise the franchise, but nonetheless there are still barriers.”

Brown puts much of the blame for VEP’S demise on the people who have benefited the most from the progress the organization made possible: black political leaders and the black middle class, who failed to provide the money to keep the organization going after the foundations pulled out. Since word of the organization’s collapse began to circulate, he says, “I’ve had hundreds of letters from people lamenting the fact that VEP is going to close. Nobody has said, ‘How can we — blacks — put together a way to save this organization?’ In the final analysis, nobody else pays for your freedom. You have to pay for it yourself.”


No city better symbolizes black political success than Atlanta. Nearly every important elective office — mayor, Congressman, 12 of the 18 seats on the city council — is occupied by an African American. Unlike most of the declining industrial centers where blacks have seized control since the ’60s, Atlanta is a thriving business and cultural powerhouse. When an ebullient young lawyer named Maynard Jackson became the first black mayor in 1974, the most prominent feature of the skyline was the Polaris, a flying saucer-like revolving restaurant atop the 24-floor Hyatt Regency Hotel. Today that landmark can scarcely be seen amid the towering hotels and office towers that have been built since Jackson broke the color line at city hall.

But even in this citadel of black political power, the benefits of economic development have not been evenly shared. While more than $1 billion has been invested in the affluent, predominantly white northern portion of the city, there has been virtually no new development in the black neighborhoods to the south. Atlanta’s population has plummeted from 495,000 in 1970 to 394,000 as middle-class blacks and whites have fled to suburbs where few blacks lived two decades ago. Black businessman J.O. Wyatt still resides in Cascade Heights, the traditional bastion of Atlanta’s black bourgeoisie. But he opened a posh new nightclub called Just Jazz in the white Buckhead neighborhood. “I’ve been criticized for that by other blacks who wanted me to locate it out on Campbellton Road ((a commercial drive in black Atlanta)),” he says, “but I had to go where the money is.”

Because Atlanta limits mayors to two consecutive four-year terms, Jackson stepped down in 1982 to become a high-paid bond lawyer. His first two terms were marked by bitter battles to carve out a share of city business for black companies. Against strong opposition from the white business community, he insisted that black-owned construction firms be given a major share of the contracts for Atlanta’s rapid-transit system. He was succeeded by former Congressman Andrew Young, who devoted his eight years in office to increasing < the city’s foreign trade.

Jackson returned to politics in 1989 and won a third term as mayor. Although his gospel-tinged oratory about the power of politics to uplift the poor remains as dynamic as ever, some of Jackson’s strongest supporters complain that his priorities have changed and that he has become a tool of white business interests. Jackson’s and Young’s dickering with developers has resulted in new business opportunities for black professionals, but not much of this largesse has trickled down to the poor. “The civil rights movement might turn out to be one of the worst things that ever happened to us,” says the Rev. Jasper Williams, pastor of Salem Baptist Church. “The dream of Martin Luther King has become a nightmare because all it has done is make white businessmen richer and make us poorer.” Says the Rev. McKinley Young of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Atlanta’s oldest black congregations: “It’s like rising to the top of the stairs and discovering that things are just as difficult there as they were at the bottom.”

Jackson says politics can still be the salvation of blacks if they would vote in larger numbers for candidates who sympathize with urban needs. He notes that black turnout in this year’s presidential primaries has fallen off significantly, compared with 1988’s. “I think we are in an era of limited choices until such time as we activate our numbers and start taking care of business at the ballot box,” he says. “We’re sitting on the means of our economic and social liberation and not using the power we have.” Some critics point out that poor blacks often go to the polls in record numbers to help blacks get elected, then drop out after receiving little in exchange for their votes. One reason is that it is relatively easy to satisfy the demands of businessmen, including blacks, who can return the favor with campaign contributions. It is far more difficult to devise remedies for the problems of members of the underclass, who lack the savvy and organization to make their voices heard. Says Atlanta Congressman John Lewis: “A segment of black leadership has gotten so wrapped up in dealmaking that they’ve forgotten the people who elected them.”


Under the rule of Jim Crow, blacks were united by the struggle against racial oppression and tended to speak with one voice. Today the expansion of opportunities has allowed African Americans to split along economic lines; the & interests of the relatively well-off middle class are not the same as those of the poor. As a result, skin color alone is no longer a reliable guide to blacks’ political attitudes, which range from the antiwar radicalism of Oakland Congressman Ron Dellums to the conservativism of Stanford University economist Thomas Sowell. Yet many blacks cling to an old tradition of rallying behind any fellow black who comes under attack regardless of what he stands for. An emotionally wrenching case in point: the widespread support among Southern blacks for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas after his elevation to the high court was threatened by Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment charges. Thomas claimed he was being subjected to a “high-tech lynching,” a phrase designed to appeal to the racial sensitivities of blacks and white guilt.

The success of Thomas’ tactic was a testament to black political power. White Southern Democrats, whose re-election depends on combining huge black voting majorities with much smaller shares of the white vote, came down in Thomas’ favor after polls showed that large majorities of African Americans supported him. Among them was Lawrence C. Presley, the only black county commissioner of Etowah County, Ala. “I felt that we needed a black to take over that spot on the Supreme Court,” says Presley. “We felt here in the Deep South that that was a very vital issue to us.”

Since taking his place on the high court last year, Thomas has consistently voted with the conservative majority. That was exactly what most blacks, who knew of his opposition to affirmative action and criticism of civil rights leaders, expected. What they did not anticipate is that Thomas, who grew up poor in segregated Pin Point, Ga., would join in an important ruling earlier this year that could make it easier for whites to thwart the effective exercise of black political power. No brother, no matter how right wing, they felt, could acquiesce in such a ruling.

The ruling came in Presley’s case against four white members of the Etowah County commission. For decades these officials had one prime function: supervising the county road budget, with each determining how funds would be spent within his district. In 1986 the commission settled a long-running voting-rights lawsuit by agreeing to expand the body from four to six members; they also agreed that the two new members would have the same duties as the four holdovers. Presley was elected from a newly created 65% black district in the county seat of Gadsden. Eight months later, the four white holdovers rammed through a resolution that abolished individual commissioners’ spending authority over road projects in favor of a common fund to be governed by the entire commission. Since the four white holdover commissioners voted as a bloc, Presley, a 67-year-old retired school administrator, discovered that he had no say over the largest item in the county budget. He had become a second- class commissioner.

Presley filed a federal suit, charging that the holdovers had violated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision requires officials in the covered states to “preclear” changes they want to make “with respect to voting rights” with the U.S. Justice Department before putting them into effect. The department can overrule the changes if it finds that they pose a threat to minority voting strength. Presley contended he needed control over a portion of the road budget as a bargaining chip with other commissioners for such things as funding for improved health care for indigent people in his district. Says he: “If you want to push something in your district, that’s where you have the power because that’s where the money is.” The Bush Administration, which most blacks view as indifferent at best to their interests, sided with Presley.

But the court’s majority, joined by Thomas, ruled against Presley on the ground that even though the resolution had undercut Presley’s authority as a commissioner, it had no direct impact on voting procedures. The decision drew a stinging dissent from Justice John Paul Stevens, who pointed out that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act had been adopted specifically because “recalcitrant white majorities could be expected to devise new stratagems to maintain their political power if not closely scrutinized.” The court’s narrow interpretation of the law, says Lani Guinier, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania law school, could presage “a very anemic view of political participation in which blacks can vote and even win office, but they can’t govern.”

For Presley, the most painful thing about the ruling was that Thomas took part in it. Because the black jurist had concurred in it, many blacks found it hard to discern its potentially damaging impact on their political aspirations. “Black people here learned a lesson from this,” says Presley. “Just because he’s black does not necessarily mean that he’s positive.”

^ Despite the frustrations of their first generation in politics, blacks are far from giving up on the vote. For many, the past 30 years have been but a painful first step in learning how to move the levers of power. This year there have been signs of a new sophistication among African-American voters, including a willingness to defeat black incumbents, like Chicago Congressman Savage, who sought to deflect questions about his ineffectiveness and high rate of absenteeism by attacking “Jewish” campaign contributions to his opponent, Mel Reynolds.

Some experts, like Harvard political scientist Martin Kilson, hail the rise of a new breed of “transethnic” black politicians such as Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder and Seattle mayor Norman Rice. Unlike most black politicians, who come to power representing mostly black constituencies, these candidates have won elections in predominantly white jurisdictions by forging biracial coalitions. Their victories suggest that many white voters are willing to judge black politicians by their performance in office rather than by their race. Blacks will expand the limits of their political power once more of them begin to do the same.

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